A religion whose basic tenets were formulated fourteen hundred years ago could hardly be expected to have insisted on kindness to animals. However, William Montgomery Watt draws attention to the kindness shown to animals by the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, on whom be peace. Watt explains that Muhammad and his early followers had been persecuted in Mecca where Muhammad was born. Muhammad soon had to leave Mecca. But he eventually gathered enough support for his message, and he was thus able to march back victoriously into Mecca. On this occasion, Muhammad passed by a female dog and her puppies. According to Watt, Muhammad gave orders that the canines were not to be disturbed; and he even posted a man to make sure of this. To Watt, this was “remarkable for Muhammad’s century and part of the world.”
To Muslims, such behaviour is understandable, as the prophet Muhammad is addressed by God in the Quran in these terms: “We have not sent you but as a mercy to the worlds” (Quran 21:107). The plural ‘worlds’ here would definitely include the animal world.
Respect for animals is demanded by the Quran. Many of its verses (including 16:48; 17:44; 22:18; and 24:41) declare that animals praise God in ways unknown to us but appreciated by God. In the hadith, the second source of Islamic teachings, a story is related of a previous prophet who was stung by an ant. He then ordered the burning of the entire ant colony. But God reprimanded him for burning a community of creatures that used to glorify God.
The Quran declares that animals form communities similar to our own (6:38). This indicates that animal communities should be preserved as they are. Unbeknownst to the prophet, some of his companions once took away two little birds from their nest. The mother was visibly disturbed by this until the prophet asked who had taken away her young ones and ordered that they be returned to their nest.
While it is self-evident to people of faith that God provides for humans, it is clear from the Quran (see 10:24; 79:30; 80:31) that God also provides for animals. Muslims are encouraged to also provide food for animals. In this regard a hadith declares that if one plants a tree from which people, birds, or animals eat this will count as a charity. Another hadith recounts the story of a sinful woman who used her shoe to dip water and offer a dog to drink. For this reason she was forgiven her sins and admitted to Paradise. On the other hand, an example was made of another woman who was punished by God for having confined a cat, neither feeding it nor allowing it to seek food on its own, until it died of hunger.
Such is the sensitivity Islam demonstrates towards animals. To be sure, there are two aspects of Islamic teachings which may seem to count against this positive picture. First, Muslims are generally not vegetarians. Second, there seems to be some disdain for dogs in the Islamic tradition. As for the first item, it would be beyond the scope of this paper to fully address the philosophical question of whether or not people can with good conscience eat meat. It will suffice here to note that Islam strikes a reasonable balance on the question. The Muslim allowance to eat meat is counterbalanced with certain considerations. First, Muslims are made to realise that it is only with the permission of God that they are allowed to eat meat, and that they do not have the liberty to slaughter animals on a whim. This is demonstrated in the blessing uttered at the moment of slaughtering: “In the name of God. God is greater.” By this formula Muslims acknowledge that God is greater than humans. While we may have power over the animal, God has power over us; and, had it not been for the permission of God we would have no right to slaughter animals for food. According to a hadith, the prophet said that God will question anyone who kills a bird or an animal except for the legitimate purpose of procuring food.
The blessing formula which Muslims generally utter in at the beginning of good deeds is: “In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.” But, before slaughtering animals they utter: “In the Name of God. God is the Greatest.” Hence at the time of slaughtering Muslims do not mention the Mercy of God. Apparently, this is an acknowledgement that the act is not a reflection of mercy to the animal. Yet Muslims are required to be kind to the animals as far as possible even in the slaughtering procedure. According to a popular saying of the prophet, God has prescribed kindness in all things; hence even the slaughtering of animals should be done with as much kindness as is possible in that circumstance. We should sharpen the blade so as to spare the animal any unnecessary suffering while laying it quickly to rest. The animal is even to be spared the possibility of psychological abuse. This can be seen from the fact that the prophet scolded a man for sharpening his blade in the full view of the animal to be slaughtered. Likewise Islam considers it sinful to use animals for target practice. According to a hadith, the prophet severely condemned anyone who would use a living creature for target practice. He likewise condemned anyone who would mutilate an animal.
As for the question of dogs and the Islamic tradition, there seems to be a grey area in the tradition about the reason for dogs being kept at some distance. A hadith goes as far as prescribing the killing of dogs. However, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, writing in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, explains the attitude of Muslim jurists to such hadiths:
Most jurists rejected the traditions mandating the killing of dogs as fabrications because, they reasoned, such behavior would be wasteful of life. These jurists argued that there is a presumption prohibiting the destruction of nature, and mandating the honoring of all creation. Any part of creation or nature cannot be needlessly destroyed, and no life can be taken without compelling cause. For the vast majority of jurists, since the consumption of dogs was strictly prohibited in Islam, there was no reason to slaughter dogs.
We have already cited traditions in this paper encouraging kindness to dogs. If all dogs are to be killed, to which dogs might such kindness apply? In his book The Animal: Its Particulars and its Rights Within Islam, Muhammad az-Zaybaq suggests that the tradition about killing dogs refers to dogs that were affected by rabies.
In sum, Muslims are not to harm dogs but to help them. This mandate receives further emphasis in another story, this time of a man helping a dog. According to a hadith, the prophet said that a man noticed a dog suffering from thirst. He climbed down into a well and used his shoe to bring up water for the dog. Due to this act of kindness, he was forgiven of his sins. When the prophet told his companions this story, they asked in surprise, “Messenger of God, are we rewarded for kindness to animals?” The prophet replied, “There is a reward with regards to every living thing.”
The Quran mentions the story of a number of righteous young men and their dog who took shelter in a cave. That story shows the faithfulness of the dog, for it was there guarding the threshold of the cave. Since dogs serve humans in a variety of ways, whether as guards or guides, humans should return the favour by treating them with kindness. Such was the example of the prophet in the story with which we began this paper. The prophet posted a man to guard a dog and her puppies from being disturbed. That must have made for a beautiful scene. It illustrates the prophet’s saying that anything becomes beautiful when kindness is added to it.